UK Athletics considers third gender plan piloted in Scotland

Addressing the quandary of intersex competitors has vexed sporting organisers for decades, dating back to sprinter Stella Walsh in the 1930s and progressing onward to the present through her fellow Olympic champion Caster Semenya whose dominance in the 800 metres has led so many of her rivals to cry foul.

Caster Semenya's dominance in the 800 metres has led to claims she holds an unfair advantage. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Caster Semenya's dominance in the 800 metres has led to claims she holds an unfair advantage. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

Yet at a time when gender has never been more openly fluid, Scottish Athletics has quietly piloted the concept of a non-binary category to nestle comfortably alongside male and female, an acorn of an idea which will pass to UK Athletics for formal consideration next month and which could, potentially, become part of its rule book from 2018.

“Firstly, it’s come from requests from within our membership to recognise people’s needs and that’s when you look at a third-gender designation and how it might work with UK Athletics and IAAF rules,” confirms Scottish Athletics chief executive Mark Munro.

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“It’s not about Caster Semenya. It’s about supporting our membership and it’s something we’ve already looked at in terms of Scottish Athletics, and UKA, achieving our Equality Standard. And it’s also about event organisers and how they can offer opportunities and adapt to the needs of their participants. It’s an area that’s only going to progress.”

The initial pilot event – June’s Pride Run in Edinburgh – attracted 60 ticks in the third box and while the returns from a second trial in last Sunday’s Jedburgh 10k are not yet available, informal figures were higher than expected. “It has made us sit up and notice certainly,” Munro admits.

Catering for any latent demand on this scale is relatively simple, of course. At the elite end, it remains a veritable minefield with IAAF president Lord Coe understood to be preparing a renewed initiative to address the issue of how Semenya and others retain a supposed unfair advantage. It will, almost certainly, revisit the idea of forcing intersex athletes to take drugs to reduce their adrenaline levels to those of the average female, a campaign that regained momentum when the South African led home Francine Niyonsaba and Margaret Wambui in the 800m final at Rio 2016 with claims that all three profit from an excess of the hormone.

Resolving the issues and imbalances there has previously ended up in the courts and could do so again. A middle ground has its own perils. The prospect of adding a non-binary gender, with separate classifications, to a Diamond League programme will keep event promoters up into the wee small hours.

“Track and field is very different with timetables and venues,” Munro concedes. “If we look at further pilots, it’s likely to be on road races in the first instance. But there is no reason why large participation races can’t include a third gender.”

Or that minds should not be kept open. “It is a new area for us all to understand,” he adds. “We’ve been very supportive of the initial two races. It will be interesting to see where we take this. It has to evolve. Where it goes, we don’t know.”